In the summer of 2005, I traveled to Hungary to watch one of the Red Bull Air Races in Budapest. It was a really impressive affair, right down on the Danube, in front of the Austrian-Hungarian empire-era Parliament building, in front of 1.2 million people lining the banks.
The starting line was the famous Chain Bridge that spanned the Danube between the old Buda and Pest areas of town. In point of fact, the starting line was under the Chain Bridge. Which would have been challenge enough in normal weather, but due to the excessive rain Europe had received that summer, the Danube was unusually high, leaving something less than 30 feet between the water and the underside of the bridge.
From there, the racers cut tight turns around closely-spaced inflatable pylons, working aerobatic maneuvers in between each pylon turn. I had no real desire to put myself through the entire nine yards of that experience (so to speak), but I thought it would help me write a better story about the race if I could at least fly through the course without the aerobatics, to get a sense of at least the turns and speed.
I approached Kirby Chambliss, one of two U.S. pilots in the race, and asked about flying along with him on a practice run. Now, normally, if I show an interest in a pilot’s favorite kind of airplane or flying–especially if they know I’m going to write about it for Flying magazine––it’s not that hard to get a ride. Pilots, as a rule, love to share their passion with someone who they hope will “get it” and bring that passion to life.
Kirby, however, didn’t react that way at all. He literally, physically recoiled when I asked about a ride, a sharp frown forming on his face.
“No,” he said, shaking his head vigorously. “No way. I wouldn’t take anyone else with me on that course. It’s too risky.”
It’s the only time in my writing and flying career that I’ve encountered that kind of reaction.
In the end, I got to ride through a couple of passes and turns around practice pylons Red Bull had set up at a nearby airport. I flew with Peter Besenyei, the Hungarian national aerobatic champion who’d made a name for himself flying underneath the Chain Bridge inverted. But none of the pilots, Besenyei included, would entertain the idea of taking me through the course itself.
I pressed Kirby a bit further about their reluctance. “Lane, we’re turning 10 or 11 Gs on some of those turns there. 10 Gs,” he explained. “And then whipping around in another direction, five feet off the water.”
Not that I needed any convincing. If an aerobatic pilot who loves flying fast, low, and upside down so adamantly refuses to take a passenger because of the risks involved, I sure as sugar don’t have any desire to change their mind. But it made me wonder about why these guys were willing to take on those risks for themselves. If the risks were so high, what did that portend for the safety of the races? When I asked him about it, Kirby shrugged.
“Are we going to lose one of these sometime?” he answered. “Probably. But it’s like the Indy 500. Is someone going to go into the wall at Indy? Probably. Is that dangerous? Yes. Could we make it safer? Yes. But would anyone watch it, then? No.”
Fortunately, Adilson Kindlemann, the Red Bull Air Race pilot who crashed into the water during a practice run for the air race in Perth Australia Sunday, managed to escape with only minor injuries.
But here’s the really sad thing. Kirby was right. The Red Bull Air Races have been going on for five years. The races really are spectacular events, combining aerobatics, speed, and competition with high-tech multi-media presentation and staging in unusual venues that draw a larger, non-pilot audience. But I’ve never seen them covered on CNN’s nightly prime time news until Sunday. I was at the gym when I saw the footage of Kindlemann’s crash, from his cockpit camera, right there on the evening headline news. It took a crash for the races to register that kind of placement or notice.
And somewhere in that equation of what gets noticed, which is what producers think we’ll watch … and what, apparently, we DO watch … and what that means for the risks people feel compelled to take, or what we end up valuing, or creating, or what role or responsibility we might have in it all … are some uncomfortable questions and truths we all might take a moment or two to think about.